Authors: Nikolai Bird
Copyright 2014 Nikolai Bird
Nikolai Bird at Smashwords
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Table of Contents
Let it be known far and wide that writing a
first novel is hard work. I would go so far as to say that it is near impossible without help. Let me thank those that have helped me produce Malspire for without them I would long ago have given up. Martin Godaly for his imagination and encouragement. Liz Bailey for her invaluable advice and insight, and Maria, my wife for her patience and love. Thank you all.
I always had a poor memory, but as I grow older, my body weaker and my back ever more bent, memories return to me like flotsam surfacing from the long lost depths of time. Bits and pieces rise to the fore and fill the mind’s eye with the years long past. Now, I cannot remember what I had for food yesterday yet clearly recall being allowed eggs the day of my flogging and that was a lifetime ago. I see the faces and remember the names, the smells, the noises, the tastes; all so real and yet gone, so alive and yet dead now. My brother, I remember best, and then the woman I loved. Their faces never faded, but now I can even hear them, their voices like echoes in my mind, laughing, crying. When drifting to sleep, it is often my name they call out. “Malspire,” and I awake with a jolt as though they are in my room. The ghosts are calling me. They call for me to join them.
The world grows colder. Already blind, a cripple and unable to walk, I await the malady, pox or fever that will finish me. Perhaps I will simply sleep tonight and never again wake up, joining them in a world of dreams. I might be wrong though. It would not be the first time and so let me return …
The swiving bastards. My back was laid bare to the burning sun for all to see the cursed hump that gave me my stooped bearing. Somewhere above, steam vented from the engine boiler, a gull cried in distress, a fat fly sucked hungrily on the sweat of my brow.
To be a fly and just fly away. An ugly creature, yes, but free to drink. To be ugly and tied down, thirsting in this heat was just cruel, as cruel as a child that plucks the wings off the fly. I shook my head. Not to dislodge the fly but to clear my wandering mind. Crew mumbled and shuffled their feet as the officers on the aftcastle behind me prepared for my punishment. It was easy to imagine the smug looks on their faces. At least they would be as hot as roasting pigs in their full dress uniforms.
A fly with no wings. It cannot fly, so is it still a fly? It is a crawl! It is an abomination, a cripple, a broken device that must be discarded. Such a thing must die.
I heard the creak of leather as the flaying whip was bent in the hands of the man that would be wielding that cruel tool this day. That man was a huge, grim faced brute called Jodlin - a toothless, bald figure who was all muscle and fat and little brains.
I bit hard into the dry strip of leather clenched tightly between my teeth. It was as dry as my parched mouth and my mouth felt like rough paper. I chided myself for letting this happen. Fool! I should have seen it coming after I had refused to witness the practice of flaying the skin from the backs of seamen by turning my own in protest. I should have understood that Captain Crosp would never let such a public display of insubordination go unpunished and find a way to have me put on the rack with my shirt unceremoniously ripped from my ugly, deformed back.
I blame it on my taste for the ladies which had started as a boy at my home, Ardalrion Castle. My brother, Ajator would sleep with the maids after which the girls would whisper and giggle behind his back. I would sleep with them too, but it cost me, and afterwards, there were no whispers or giggles but a shamed silence. Ever since those long gone days I had visited brothels in every port I had been to while serving as an officer aboard the Sea Huntress. It was nothing unusual. All the men did it, but an officer was meant to set an example. Of course the officers also took advantage of the soft flesh on offer, but being discreet about such things seemed pointless to me, arrogant pup that I was. I was now learning that it was far from pointless. A vindictive and spiteful captain should never be privy to the private activities of his officers. Crosp found a way to put me on the rack, which, I realize now that I probably deserved just for being so naive. I was young and foolish.
We were in the southern waters where the exotic ladies called to us from piers, songs of praise to the gods rang out through the day and silence fell when the sins of the flesh were enjoyed by night. As soon as I could, I made straight for the local brothel where one predictably got drunk, and went to bed with a dark seductress who was going to teach me how things were done in such ancient lands, where the stars shone like crystals in the clear heavens after the sun went down, and when it returned it beat down with a ferocious anger. She smelt of spices, wine and perfume. No sooner had the woman taken off her gown to reveal a perfect pair of tanned breasts, than the door was kicked open, and two of the weathered crew stepped in followed by the captain himself.
"What’s this, Ardalrion?" Crosp said with a victorious sneer.
"Don’t know her name, Captain," I growled, jumping off the bed and standing to attention. "I thought I would get to know the locals and found this lady willing to impart some local custom, sir."
The seamen carried nasty looking clubs. Above me a large cloth covered frame fanned the room, stirring the flies and air which was clammy and made my clothes stick to my skin. Crosp could not take his eyes off the woman’s breasts and licked his sweating lips as he spoke, "Found a ripe pair of titties have you? Conduct unbecoming of an officer, Ardalrion. That’s what it is!" he hissed. The toad was enjoying this. I hated the fat, rheumy eyed, bastard. Crosp had a sickly, bloodshot pallor and crusted food down his front. There was always a line of drool down one side of his chin.
"But, sir..." was all I could say before the two burly crewmen dragged me off back to the ship, leaving the captain with the woman. The last we saw was Crosp closing the door on myself and the crewmen, never taking his eyes off the woman's breasts. Swiving hypocrite.
The air was still and hot. I needed a drink. I shook my head again, this time to dislodge the incessant flies. I couldn't see what was going on behind me, tied to a wooden frame by both hands, my feet just touching the deck. Crosp was drawing it out. He was enjoying his victory. I remembered the first meeting we had when I had been assigned to the steam frigate. I had reported for duty and was immediately berated for not standing straight.
"An officer stands tall, Mister Ardalrion," said the captain, spit hitting my face. The man seemed completely unaware of his habit of dribbling or didn't care. It stank.
I tried to stand tall but it was not physically possible with my bent back. As a child I had been scorned and shunned for an ugly little rat. I knew I was ugly with a hooked nose and odd eyes - a light piercing blue. I limped too with a bad foot. I was thin and always looked ungainly in any clothing worn. Now, I simply fixed my gaze upon the window behind the captain's desk.
"It would seem that I have drawn the short straw," said Crosp. "You are a junior officer now under my command and I run a tight ship you hear me?"
"Discipline, man. Discipline! My officers will stand tall!"
I said nothing. It was obvious that he could not oblige the captain, but I did my best.
"Your father has requested that I give you an apprenticeship. The Academy have given me notes on your character. Fractious they say. Fractious! I'll have none of that on my ship!" The man was practically frothing at the mouth. "You're a high born maggot, Ardalrion, but even a maggot that feasts on a duke's leftovers will burst beneath my boot, you hear me?"
I heard it well enough, and had heard it a hundred times from a hundred swivers before. I wanted to lash out with a rebellious retort. "I hope to prove my worth, sir," I said instead. I never was a brave man.
"Your worth? You are the spoilt son of a duke. You've been spoon fed your entire life, given an education and, in my opinion, the most noble of careers. Did you work hard for this?" The captain did not wait for an answer. "I've worked hard to be where I am, Ardalrion."
The captain's cabin was full of dead animals, stuffed and mounted. Behind Crosp in a corner was a worn ape dressed in the greens of a rebel officer which Crosp evidently used as a hat stand. All the animals and birds stared at me, it seemed, with sad glassy eyes. I recall it was raining that day. Water fell in gusts upon the cabin windows.
"My father was a country priest who gave his last penny to the Academy and even then I had to work for my keep. I worked hard and here I am. You? What have you done to deserve a commission? Nothing! Your worth is little at best. Do your duty as an officer or you will suffer, Ardalrion. Suffer!"
I knew the lashing was going to hurt. I shivered despite the heat. I felt sick. A gentle squall rocked the ship followed by the familiar lapping sound as she settled back. I knew pain, both physical and emotional. Once a boy called Jendon had broken my arm, and then kicked me in the face. The pain had been excruciating and I had screamed like a little girl. I was only a child then, but the memory would always come back to me when threatened with physical pain. I knew pain. I also knew that I must control it. It was all in the mind, and I had a keen mind. Terrible memory, but I was clever. Young, arrogant fool, but clever.
"Silence!" called Qenrik, one of the other junior officers aboard the Sea Huntress. The crew fell silent. I recognised the nasal voice of the small man. Quenrik was another snivelling turd who spent his waking hours sucking on Crosp's arse and his nights dreaming of the captain's shaft. All the officers were the same - lackeys the lot of them.
At the start of my tour, the officers knew only that I was Lord Malspire Ardalrion, the son of their Lord Admiral, the commander of the Ardalrion fleet, but when they realized they would gain nothing by associating themselves with me and stood a better chance of promotion by ingratiating themselves with the captain, they took to ignoring me, and then to shunning my company. I suppose this made me sad, but I was used to it and expected nothing less.
I turned my head and could make out some of the crew. To my surprise, some of them looked ashamed. Of course there were those that could hardly wait for the flogging to begin. To see an officer lashed by the cutter was probably a dream for most of the men, but some did not want to meet my eyes while some even looked apologetic. Those men obviously sympathised with me for my protest, weak as it was. One of the men even nodded respectfully. This was Seaman Grandon Harl, the head man, who spoke for the crew and whose job it was to make any orders happen. He was a grizzled old sea dog with an intelligent eye who was master below deck. Harl rarely spoke to an officer, but he obeyed orders and had an obvious knack with the lads. I knew that flogging was a necessary evil, used to set an example and ensure discipline, but the captain dished it out as a matter of course finding any excuse however small to flog a man. It was wrong and cruel and I felt I had to make a point.
"Silence!" Called Qenrik again. "Let us witness the punishment of Junior Officer Lord Malspire Ardalrion for crimes committed in the service of the Imperial and Ardalrion Navy…"
This is it! My stomach felt loose. Damned heat! I wanted to lick my lips but I would drop the leather strip. My wrists hurt where the ropes bit into them. I would probably forget that particular pain soon enough. I was angry, and hated them. How dare the bastards do this? I could feel nothing for those men in the aftcastle. I was not one of them! They were just herd animals dressed in frilly frocks baying for blood. Damn them all, but I would have my revenge.
Soon they would rip my body open. I shivered again, but was resolved to take the lashing like a man, yet knew it was going to be hard. When I had seen the crewmen flogged with the cutting tails, it had made every one of them scream like banshees on the very first kiss of the whip and not stop until the last unless they fell unconscious before then, which happened as often as not. I would hold my tongue though! I did not want to give Crosp the satisfaction.
"… conduct unbecoming of an officer," Qenrik was saying.
That little prick had taken a boy not two months earlier. Qenrik had looked embarrassed at the time when I came upon them and he tried to convince me that the boy was massaging a bad back. Of course he was. If there was one word that would sum up every officer and every noble, it was hypocrite.
"… as stated in the Imperial Naval Regulations, the punishment for which is a public flogging of thirty lashes..."
Of course not all officers were bad. I had met a few who seemed decent enough. Ajator was a good man. I was pleased Ajator was not here to see me now - to see my body exposed to the scrutiny of the mob and see me shiver in anticipation and fear. As far as I was concerned, my brother was perfect in every way. Where I was thin, craven and ill to look upon, Ajator was strong, handsome and ever the brave hero. We were twins, but nobody would have guessed it. People said I was morose and brooding whereas Ajator was golden haired, quick to smile and enthusiastic. We were both officers now on different ships. Ajator would be having lunch with the admiral aboard the Grand Oak no doubt, the Grand Oak being the battleship he had been assigned to. It was the general consensus that Ajator would be the next Lord Admiral of the Ardalrion fleet and duke once our father was gone or retired. I was so proud of my brother. Ajator was the perfect choice and a blessing to our family. I could not say the same for myself. I was born a disappointment to Duke Ajorion Ardalrion, my father.
Qenrik had gone silent. The heat and dehydration were getting to me. I had to fight a feeling of panic growing in my belly. My heart pounded, my head hurt. I had hardly heard a word of the rambling accusations, not that I was interested. All I knew was that a sailor had picked out a nasty looking, nine tailed flayer - the long kind with cutting barbs that would soon rip the skin from my back like a knife scrapes butter. The nine tailed flayer was a much nastier tool than the shorter nine tailed switch as used on most ships. Crosp was a cruel man.